Montero's Moment: The Birth of Jesús

With the recent news of Fransico Cervelli's broken foot sideling the young catcher for six to eight weeks, the chances of Jesus Montero winning the Yankees' back up catcher job out of spring training have skyrocketed. Wait, what? Analysts and reporters are seriously considering baseball's top catching prospect and consensus top four prospect* as candidate to be a back up?

As even the most inattentive prospectors know, there have never been questions about Montero's bat, as both his hit and power tools have been rated a 70 or better by a myriad of scouts. At this point, its safe to say that such a thunderous yet inexperienced bat must be playing full time in 2011 to continue development. 

Even before taking his first major league swings major projection systems are praising Jesus.

System

BA

OBP

SLG

PECOTA

.270

.337

.446

ZiPS

.276

 

 .334

.503

OLIVER

.287

.338

.502

 

If you have some disposable income, I STRONGLY recommend you follow the links above and buy the PECOTA and OLIVER projections and donate to ZiPS. All three are fantastic products.

But, questions still remain if Montero is truly a catcher. Montero believes he is, stating emphatically, "I want to be behind the plate every single time. I don't want to lose all four years I've been catching with the Yankees. I want to be behind the plate. I want to catch and help them win."

But, the experts at Baseball America aren't sold. Jim Callis has previously said,  "Overall he's a little below average defensively," and "It's not like he's a total butcher back there." His counterpart John Manuel agreed stating, "Montero has more arm strength, accuracy is his issue. Montero has improved; he used to be a 30 catcher. Now he's a 40 catcher. Only person who ever has considered him more than a 40 catcher to me was Mark Newman."

Luckily for Montero, Mark Newman is kind of a big deal. For those of you who aren't aware, Mr. Newman has been with the Yankees for over two decades and is currently the Senior Vice President for Baseball Operations. Recently, in an interview with Minor League Ball founder and Sports Blog Nation's John Sickles Newman said that he believed Montero would be a good defensive catcher after working on his mobility, flexibility and technique with catching coordinator Julio Mosquera. Agreeing with Manuel that Montero has a strong throwing arm while adding, "he receives the ball well, sets a good target." General Manager Brian Cashman agrees, comparing him to Jorge Posada, "Montero is an offensive catcher that can catch. We think he's better than people think. We have no doubt he's going to be a catcher."

Quite a diverse set of opinions about the budding slugger, but at this point, what incentive do the Yankees have to spin the truth? With the 21 year old knocking on 1 E 161st Street's front gates and the organization being adamant about not trading him, Cashman and Newman have two options. Play him at catcher or designated hitter. They can tell the media he is a catcher, but the truth will be exposed when Montero makes his long awaited debut. Plus, it would be an awkward breach of trust between the organization and Montero, who is dead set on catching, to suddenly uproot him from the position.

Using Beyond the Box Score and sabr super star Matt Klaassen's Catcher Defense Rankings, we can try put Montero's defensive value into context which should help in determining what the Yankees should do with him for the upcoming season.

Healthy everyday starters are catching approximately 4500 plate appearances with the worst catchers projecting to be 20 runs below average, if they were to play full time. Using Montero's AAA statistics and Matts formulas, I've determined Montero was 4.5 runs below the International League average catcher (-3 for "CSRuns", 1.5 for "PBRuns" and average on errors**) over his approximately 3980 plate appearances behind the dish. Now, as far as I know there are no minor league equivalents for catching defense but, its probably safe to assume that the average major league catcher and base runner is significantly better than those lingering in the International League. So, to be safe, I'm going to double Montero's ability, or lack there of, and project him a -9 catcher. If you want to live on the wild side and rate him worse, say -13.5 or -15, you'll hear no arguments from me.

In comparison, Matt's 2010 rankings have Posada as -13.5 runs per 4500 plate appearances, Cervelli as -13.8, and starter Russell Martin as league average. So, either I'm giving Montero too much credit, or the Yankees other potential backstops, outside of Martin, are his defensive equal (or worse).

With Cervelli injured and Posada permanently moving to DH, the only decision left to make is whether Martin or Montero should be starting. That is of course, if you too believe Montero must have 600 plate appearances this season. Given the aging Yankee roster it is unlikely that Montero will be getting many plate appearances as a designated hitter when Posada gets a day off. Likely, those plate appearances will got to elder statesman like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. If Montero isn't starting, it would be unwise for Cashman to carry him on the roster while he can get continue to develop at Scranton.

For this brief comparison, lets assume that Martin and Montero will have equal playing time at catcher and thus have the same replacement level and positional adjustments (I'm assuming the 4500 defensive PA and 550 trips to the plate). For Montero's hitting projections, I've taken the average the three above projections and for Martin, I took his PECOTA and ZiPS average. Due to time constraints, I did use a short cut, solely calculating OPS, approximating wOBA then calculating bRAA.

 

Russell Martin

Jesus Montero

fRAA

0

-9

bRAA

-5.5

14.3


Obviously, this is only one possible outcome, but even if we discount Montero's defense significantly and improve Martin's projection that still leaves them being around equal. But let us not forget that Montero still has significantly more upside with his 70+/70+ bat.

If Brian Cashman and Mark Newman truly believe Montero is a catcher, he should be without question their choice for opening day starter. Otherwise, let Montero refine his abilities with the tools of ignorance in the minor leagues and allow journey man Gustavo Molina to keep Cervelli's seat on the bench warm.

JD Sussman is full time law student and co-founder of Bullpen BanterHe can be reached at JDSussman@bullpenbanter.com or via twitter.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

*Baseball America(3), Baseball Prospectus (3), Bullpen Banter(3), Frankie Piliere (4), Keith Law (4), Project Prospect, JD (2), Dave (3)

**I've assumed Montero was average on errors because the data was difficult to find and he only had 6. But, doubling or tripling his AAA number should negate any issues anyway.

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